Washington, DC — Rebellion and "effective" military operations in Sudan's western Darfur area by the Sudanese Liberation Movement (SLM) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) "poses in many respects a greater threat than the activities of the SPLM (Sudanese Peoples Liberation Movement) in the south." This explains much of the government's brutal response, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Charles R. Snyder told the House International relations Committee Thursday.
Rarely is the full committee called to discuss an African issue. But the unusual and powerful coalition of conservatives and liberals that keep a watchful eye on that beleagured east African nation is now calling Darfur's conflict "the world's worst humanitarian crisis."
According to Snyder, sustained rebel attacks by combined SLM and JEM forces, on and around the regional capital of El Fasher early this year, rang loud alarm bells in Khartoum. At one point this past summer, the rebels appeared about to cut off the roads linking the Sudanese capital of Khartoum with Nyala, the main city in Southern Darfur state. "The SPLM has never threatened the north militarily," said Snyder.
This past March, Ted Dagne, an Africa specialist at the Congressional Research Service told the Associated Press: "Darfur has really shaken up this regime. Where do they stop this train? If you give in to the political demands of the Darfur rebels, why not to the Beja (in eastern Sudan), why not to the Nuba (in central Sudan) and a bunch of the other marginalized areas."
As a result, said Snyder, Khartoum's response has been ruthless and what amounts to 'ethnic cleansing' is taking place "on a large scale." The government, he told the committee, has armed Arab 'Jinjaweed' militias to carry out attacks against civilians. Government security forces have also been coordinating Jinjaweed attacks, he says.
Friday, Sudan foreign minister Mustapha Ismail denied that his government was enggaged in ethnic cleansing. "What is happening in Darfur is neither ethnic cleansing nor genocide," Mr. Ismail told the official Sudan News Agency. "It is a state of war, which resulted in a humanitarian situation."
Estimates of the number of civilians killed so far range between 15,000 and 30,000. More than one million people have been displaced because of bombing, torching, and violence that includes mass rape. Roger Winter, Assistant Administrator for USAID's Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, told the committee that in a worst-case senario, by the end of the year the number of deaths could reach 350,000 through gunfire and disease. "We think more than 100,000 people will die no matter what, at this point," he said
In a 77-page report released Thursday, Human Rights Watch accused Sudan's government of "extensive use of attack aircraft - mainly Antonov supply planes dropping crude but lethal 'barrel bombs' filled with metal shards, but also helicopter gunships and MiG jet fighters - in many areas of Darfur inhabited by Masalit, Fur, and Zaghawa civilians. It has bombed not only villages, but also some towns where the displaced have congregated."
In the view of the human rights group, what is happening in Darfur now is reminiscent of the beginning stages of Rwanda's genocide in 1994, when more than 800,000 people were killed in a matter of weeks. "Ten years after the Rwandan genocide and despite years of soul-searching, the response of the international community to the events in Sudan has been nothing short of shameful."
President Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice "have all raised Darfur in telephone calls with President [Osman Hassan al] Beshir and Vice President [Ali Uthman Muhammad] Taha," said Snyder. But he said Sudan's government continues to see a military solution as best option.
Political tension and rivalry in Khartoum also underlies its response or lack of response, said Snyder. Over 50 percent of the government's military forces come from Darfur, but from the region's African Muslim population. Those forces have been sympathetic to the anger of their kith and kin at government favoritism toward "Arab" people there, and thus have been reluctant to fight.
Meanwhile, the now-jailed Muslim cleric, Hassan el-Turabi, who has been engaged in a fierce power struggle with the ruling National Congress Party, has close links with the JEM. "This area is his power base in terms of ethnicity and religion," said Snyder. A Turabi-inspired pamphlet known as "The Black Book" argues that the Khartoum government blocks "Africans" from Darfur and other areas from senior positions in government. One reason the government refuses to talk to the JEM is that it sees it as a front for Turabi's political ambitions.
So, despite the signing of a ceasefire agreement on April 8, fighting goes on. "We are still fighting factions of the rebels," a senior Sudanese military source told Reuters Arab news service Thursday. "The fighting is continuing. We have to destroy them. These are our orders."
An Omdurman radio report Thursday, however, seemed to say that Sudan had accepted a new African Union peace plan. But when asked about it in Nairobi, Sudan Foreign Minister Mustafa Ismail did not confirm acceptance, saying instead that his government viewed the AU plan positively. The Minister also said, "We are not saying there are no human rights violations in Sudan, but we are doing our best [to stop it]."
Ismail also lashed out at the United States saying, it should back off of Sudan given its actions in Iraq. "What the U.S. soldiers are doing there, torturing people with electric shock punishments, all these have been shown on the TV."
Ismail also said he expected a North-South peace deal to be reached in days. Talks have been stalled over the disputed oil-rich Abyei region, the issue of power-sharing, and whether Khartoum will be governed by Sharia law. "They [negotiators] are now finalising the three items. They will bring them all together to be signed [as one agreement] in a matter of days, rather than weeks," Ismail said.
But Darfur hangs over and clouds what would once have been viewed as those breakthrough words by Ismail. "Khartoum's true colors, I'm afraid, are being shown in Darfur," said House Africa Subcommittee chairman Ed Royce (R-California). "At this point I have little faith in any peace agreement it signs."
Snyder, Winter and every member of the committee who spoke expressed dismay at the failure, so far, of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to either condemn or propose any action on the Darfur crisis. Last month a report critical of Khartoum, drafted by a United Nations team investigating the Darfur conflict, was squelched at the last minute. "Profoundly disappointing," said International Relations Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Illinois). The United States has asked for a special session of the Commission to consider the situation in Darfur.
There were even sharper words for the African Union. "African leaders continue to look the other way in the name of 'African solidarity,'" said chairman Hyde. At the United Nations the Africa Group nominated Sudan to sit on the Human Rights Commission. Speaking for the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressman Donald Payne (D-New Jersey), the ranking Democrat on the House subcommittee on Africa said, "We deplore this action [by the Africa Group]; it's wrong."
Tuesday, US diplomats staged a walkout at the United Nations to protest Sudan's re-election to the Commission.